A narrowboat holiday in Surrey

Boating on the River Wey

Boating on the River Wey - Credit: Archant

Look at Surrey from the air and you’ll see a map of streams, rivers and canals across our county that are not always apparent at ground level. Keen to find out more, Matthew Williams takes to the helm of a narrowboat for the weekend...

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With idealistic visions of a weekend lazing away with no cares in the world, we turn into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it car park of Guildford Boat House. Surviving the temptation to pop into the aptly named Boatman pub next door, we spring out of the car in shorts, T-shirts and flip flops, anticipating the adventures to come. And then it starts to rain.

Greeted by the friendly staff, our motley group of rank boating amateurs huddles in the cosy reception. The opportune moment to run through a few of the dos and do nots while our attention has nowhere to stray. Keep to the right. Don’t jump in. Beep your horn at corners. Run the safety checks morning and night. Avoid the horse-drawn boat. No, the horse does not swim out front. It all sounds so simple before the realisation hits that you’re set to steer almost 60 feet of metal and wood with just a tiller in hand and reverse (or the panic gear) for brakes.

Suddenly, the books and magazines packed seem unnecessary deadweights. There will be no time to read here, this is going to be hands-on and we have places to go.

Long tradition

There has been boating on the River Wey for over a century, since the inspired Leroy brothers established punt and skiff hire at Farncombe and Guildford. We’re following in a long tradition then. One, it turns out, that has hidden in plain sight from me for many years.

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The five-person Hydestile is to be our home for the weekend – loading up from a trolley that is stacked to a fortnight in Spain proportions, we remember the advisory ‘do not bring more than you need’ note.

Our crew split into skipper, Dad (well, it was his birthday); general dog’s body, myself; and moral support and tea makers, mum and wife, we settle down to a whistle-stop engineering course. “Now, a quick test for you,” says our amiable and patient tutor. “Which button is it that you have to press each night to avoid waking up among driftwood in the morning?” Blank looks. We get there in the end and our tick sheet is handed back in evidence of our new- found expertise. We feel like Oxbridge graduates, for a moment.

A crash course in steering sees frightened rowers and other river-users scarpering left and right at the command of our blaring horn on the busy water meadows bend nearby. My father and I exchange nervous glances. This isn’t going to be quite as straightforward as it had seemed in our heads. Fortunately, the practice corner turns out to be the River Wey equivalent of Spaghetti Junction and life will soon proceed at a more sedate rate of knots – and with far less screams.

Wey to go

The Wey was one of the first British rivers to be made navigable. Opening to barge traffic in 1653, it linked Guildford to London via its meeting point with the Thames at Weybridge. Of course, it being a man-made navigation, it is littered with pesky locks as it forces its way against the natural flow of the land. Our first is very much a public experience.

At Millmead Lock, with half of Surrey’s annual tourists watching on with cameras and smartphones to hand, we are all stumbling eagerness. By some miracle, though, as we gaze on in wonder, our boat sinks in the manner required to meet the stretch of river beyond.

And that’s that; we are on our way. Our host from Guildford Boat House makes good his escape with best wishes – I’m sure I glimpse a moment of relief in his eyes – and off we go. On our own, with just the river and its accompanying wildlife for company, the engine purrs lightly, Guildford slowly slips by, walkers overtake us with a smile and a wave, and cups of tea and coffee are made in our ample kitchen unit. After an intense beginning, the company’s catchphrase ‘start looking forward to slowing down with Guildford Boat House’ seems perfectly apt.

Slowly, we become increasingly confident at the helm of our charge. Coasting by Dapdune Wharf, the hub of the Wey Navigations and historically where the local barges were built, we even manage a few waves of our own at passing National Trust staff. On to Stoke Lock, the birthplace of the navigations – where the Rowbarge Inn now overlooks passing boaters. Originally controlling the water used to flood the riverside meadows, the lock formed one end of the first channel cut by Sir Richard Weston across his land in 1618. They would never look back.

The other main challenge of narrowboating is the locks themselves. It’s essential to work as a team and with them being manual and unmanned along the Wey, there’s a certain amount of brute strength needed. Quite often, however, crowds seem to gather by them and you’re able to watch on as eager children become temporary lock-keepers.

Our journey meanders through the most rural stretch of the Navigations, Triggs length, where roe deer scurry about in the fields. Here, the waterway follows the boundary of Sutton Place, a Tudor property later owned by hermit billionaire John Paul Getty and currently by Britain’s richest man, Arsenal owner Alisher Usmanov. How the other half live – a theme of any boating trip is signing imaginary cheques for the various incredible properties dotted along the navigation’s length.

As night draws in, we moor up ‘expertly’ just downstream from the New Inn, in Send, and experience their hospitality for the evening. All in the aid of research, of course, and thoroughly pleasant it was too.

Setting sail

Morning breaks to silence (bar the odd snore from a protagonist who shall remain unnamed) and our sleep has been everything you’d expect after a day of opening locks, fresh air and, taking the Aussie parlance, no worries.

Thoroughly rejuvenated, we set off to Papercourt Lock, which must be among the prettiest on our route. Next up, Newark Lock sits alongside the spectacular Newark Priory. Located on private land, this ruin was once home to a community of 200 before being sacked on the orders of Henry VIII at the dissolution.

Passing regular boaters, with everything from bikes to flower pots strewn across their vessels, we eventually reach our turning point at Pyrford, a stone’s throw from RHS Garden Wisley. As many before us, the allure of The Anchor pub right next to the lock proves too much. We join the crowds queuing out the door for a quick drink before spotting one of our previous lock mates heading back the way we had come. Thirst sated, we rush back to the boat and join them in the lock to spread the workload.

Jeremy Clarkson voice-overs run through my head as we adopt a Top Gear style race plan back through Walsham Gates, Newark, Papercourt, Worsfold Gates, Triggs, Bowers, Stoke and Millmead. Reaching speeds of up to 4mph, we make it past St Catherine’s to beat the sunset to our chosen resting place for the night near Shalford. The Seahorse pub in the village welcomes us like old friends despite the fact we look like a home counties version of Jack Sparrow and his crew on a bad day. It’s fair to say, throughout our trip, we find people consistently friendly – who needs yoga and Pilates when you have life by the river?

Sedate pace

With the bulk of our travels done, we take a more sedate pace on the final day. Watching geese and their offspring float about around the boat, we head to Godalming through families making the most of a surprisingly good bank holiday in all sorts of vessels. The Godalming Navigation opened in 1764 as an extension to the Wey Navigation and these days you’ll find it thriving with boaters heading to picnic in the meadows alongside.

Our final stop, Godalming Wharf, presents us with the surreal sight of the historic and beautiful horse-drawn boat Iona moored at its boathouse but dominated by enormous Sainsbury’s and Homebase stores. A bit of an eye-opener to how the modern world has been allowed to encroach, even here.

One of the strangest experiences, however, comes well after our trip has ended and, back at home, we take a look at the route on Google Earth. It’s only then that you realise just how close you’ve been to major conurbations. On the river, even when you spot the skyline of Woking or Guildford above the trees, you feel like you’re miles away from the rest of the world.

After three days on the river in the comfortable but confined spaces of our beloved boat, our crew had successfully learnt the ropes from scratch and enjoyed a perfect weekend. I’d love to say it ended with nothing more than a few minor infractions with lazy rowers and goslings but there was one last moment of drama to entail.

As we confidently brought the boat back into the boathouse, we came crashing down to earth with a couple of splinters and a lot of commotion. Well, you try to reverse park a 60- foot, floating home with half of Guildford watching on as they enjoy relaxing by the riverbank…


From the start of 2014, Guildford Boat House stopped trading. For alternatives, visit Waterways Holidays for holiday boat hire, Farncombe Boat House for day boat hire or Godalming Packet Boat Company for boat trips